When Michelle Smith became a middle school parent, she was surprised to see only three parents at a PTA meeting. "Where are middle school parents?" wondered Smith, now state coordinator for Texas Action for Healthy Kids and co-director for the Southern Obesity Summit.
"Our PTA produced a newsletter, did a carnival and that was about it. I started asking why? What was wrong? Where were the parents I had worked with just a year before?," she asked during a webinar today sponsored by Coordinated Approach to Child Health (CATCH) called "Parents CATCH on to Wellness!"
Smith just finished a three-year project for Action for Healthy Kids with a goal of engaging middle school parents in wellness activities in schools. She found that parents have many reasons for "dropping out" of middle school participation, and she has discovered many ways to get them re-energized for her cause, which is to create healthier children.
Among the reasons parents withdraw from middle school:
- Kids didn't really want them there.
- Parents themselves felt they weren't welcome.
- Parents already volunteered with their other children in elementary school.
- Parents are burned out on volunteering.
- They splinter off into smaller subsets, volunteering where their children's interests are, such as sports, band, or choir.
"By engaging parents, we're increasing the ability of schools to do a lot more around health and wellness," said Smith, who noted that sometimes even principals needed convincing of the worthiness of a health push at school.
Based on a three-year grant project funded by Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, Action for Healthy Kids has developed resources and ideas for getting middle school parents more engaged. From working on policy at the Campus Advisory Council to helping with Family Fun nights, parents can play a key role in school and at home.
In Smith's experience, parents need to:
- Be educated about issues around health;
- Find simple tasks for parents that they can relate to;
- Identify simple, easy steps to behavior change—such as swapping out some sugary drinks for water, or increasing physical activity;
- Connect health and academics;
- Recruit parents from the 5th grade;
- Help schools communicate/connect with parents; and,
- Recruit bilingual parents to the cause.
To motivate parents, and communicate with them, Smith said a CATCH newsletter with a consistent message to increase physical activity, and improve healthy eating proved to be valuable. It reminded parents that they are role models for their students' behavior.
The action team created four videos around healthy living concepts: "Swap Out Sodas;" "Let's Get Moving;" "Load Up on Fruits and Veggies;" and "Reduce Screen Time."
Among the success stories was a Texas middle school where, over a three-year period, the following activities were conducted:
- Family Fitness Fun Night;
- A cafeteria makeover that included stripes painted on walls and signage about fruits and veggies;
- A program in which fathers volunteered to come to lunch one day a month and play basketball, soccer or another game with the students after lunch;
- School gardens, established by a parent; and
- Safe Routes to School, which got another parent involved in securing bicycle racks and creating more sidewalks to make walking to school more feasible.
To access resources for parents and schools interested in promoting health, go to the Action for Healthy Kids website.